Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618
It was not until the American publication of Good-bye, Mr. Chips in June, 1934, that James Hilton became a popular, successful, and critically admired author. Before that, he had written eight full-length novels, as well as a large body of topical commentary and literary criticism, but he had remained relatively unknown and unappreciated. Even Lost Horizon (1933), which was later to become one of the best-selling books of its time, was largely ignored when it first appeared. The spectacular success of Good-bye, Mr. Chips surprised the author as well as all the critics.
Because Good-bye, Mr. Chips is presented as the reminiscence of an old man, the dominant mood is that of sentimental, nostalgic reverie. Hilton adroitly maintains a fine balance between the gentle humor characteristic of Mr. Chips’s everyday life and the pathos of several sad incidents, including the death of Mr. Chips’s wife in childbirth and the many deaths among his students in war. Basing Mr. Chips on a synthesis of his own father and his favorite Latin teacher, Hilton created a character many readers recognized in their own experience. It is doubtful, however, that simple reader identification or the fact that Mr. Chips (a fond nickname for Chipping) is a clearly defined, amiable, slightly eccentric, modestly humorous man is enough to account for the novel’s enormous popularity. There is something in this figure of a man with unexceptional ability, living an ordinary life, that struck a deeply responsive chord in the mid-1930’s and has continued to do so since.
Mr. Chips’s life covers the second half of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth. The historically crucial events in the book are World War I and, somewhat more vaguely in the background, the Great Depression. Mr. Chips’s appeal can be fully understood only by seeing his uneventful life in the context of the very eventful historical epoch in which it passed and by remembering the significance of 1934, the time of its publication.
Mr. Chips is, above all, a “common man.” He admits to being an ordinary teacher at a good but essentially second-class preparatory school. He gives up his early headmaster ambitions because he decides that he is not suited for the job. When he courts and marries Kathy Bridges, he cannot understand what she sees in him.
Nevertheless, this ordinary man in moments of crisis demonstrates an essential strength and resourcefulness. The outstanding example of that is the Latin lesson he conducts in the midst of an air raid. However frantic and chaotic the modern world becomes, Hilton assures readers, the common man can find the needed inner strength and will to survive with dignity.
Mr. Chips is not just an ordinary man, however; he is also the embodiment of a tradition. Brookfield is not a great school, but it is a school rooted in the British tradition of greatness. As its exemplar, Mr. Chips stands for honor, dignity, continuity, and a strong organic connection to the past. Yet, primarily because of his marriage to Kathy, he also has a sense of social movement and a compassion for the disadvantaged.
Mr. Chips balances the best of the old and the new, though he has a bias toward the old. At one point, he clashes with a progressive headmaster, and it almost costs him his job. During World War I, he defies popular prejudice publicly to commemorate a former German teacher who died fighting for the enemy.
Accurately labeled prewar by his students, Mr. Chips represents the traditional values and disciplined lifestyle that existed prior to World War I; through him, Hilton suggests that those values remain valid and can survive even in a more fast-paced, frenetic era.
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